Golden barrel cactus, a hot pick for low-water landscapes


The golden barrel cactus may be endangered in Mexico, but the plant has found new life north of the border as a top accent in low-water landscapes.

Sometimes called mother-in-law’s cushion, the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) may not send out its crown of pale yellow blossoms for 15 years, maybe more. The cactus can get 3 feet high and nearly as wide -- truly barrel sized. Although drought tolerant, regular watering will spur faster growth, said Shelly Jensen of Worldwide Exotics Nursery.

“When they’re field grown, they’re pumped up,” Jensen said of golden barrels raised by nurseries.


Fast growth has its downsides, including the possible need to replant, particularly if the cactuses form a symmetrical design. The 400-plus barrel cactuses in artists Roy Dowell and Lari Pittman’s Verdugo Hills garden were positioned precisely but over time some grew too closely together or sprouted new plants. Ultimately about 10% had to be replaced to keep the design intact.

Golden barrels can grow enthusiastically for gardeners looking for a more natural look, sending out clusters of pups surrounding the mother plant. These can be separated easily and transplanted elsewhere.

Golden barrels have sharp, rigid thorns that can cause wounds requiring antibiotics. Wear double gloves and use crumpled newspaper to handle them. If transplanting, note which side faces north and replant it in the same orientation. The cactus is sometimes called “compass cactus” because it grows toward the south to prevent sunburn.

After transplanting the cactus, water once a week for about a month. Golden barrels hate wet feet, which leads to rot, so drench the soil and then let it dry. In the winter, watering twice a month should be enough.

Golden barrels can withstand sub-freezing temperatures but not for extended periods. Place them in corners below slopes or on a slight mound to catch warm breezes.

The seeds and the cooked flowers are edible. Native Americans used to scoop out the innards to create a cooking pot.

Golden barrels are available from cactus and succulents specialists such as Worldwide Exotics nursery and California Cactus Center. For a look at golden barrels planted en masse, check out the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens’ 10-acre Desert Garden.


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